Thoughts on George Takei, Rick Polito, ghostwriting, and macrame — except for the macrame

 

Everyone knows Rick Polito, of course. He’s one of the most successful coaches in men’s college basketball.

Oh… sorry. That’s Rick Pitino. (And honestly, if you’re reading this, it’s a fair bet you don’t know who that is either.)

Anyway, few people know who Rick Polito is, which is unfortunate. He’s a former journalist, he does some ghostwriting, he lives in Colorado (Boulder), and he’s incredibly funny. (All of which reminds me of a Rick I know well, except for the incredibly funny part.)

Actually, there’s probably at least one thing you’ve seen from Polito, this brilliant summary of The Wizard of Oz:

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Come on, how perfect is that?

So maybe that’s why I couldn’t help but feel for Polito after the dust-up this week regarding his revelation that he’s been one of the people contracted to ghostwrite Facebook posts for George Takei.

Because everyone knows who Takei is. Sure, he was well known to many for being Sulu on the original Star Trek. After that, well, he had a lean decade or three. But Takei’s popularity has seen a massive upswing in massive years, thanks both to his coming out and his amazing facility for social media, especially at his age (76). Takei has an astonishing 4.1 million Facebook fans, and I’m one of them.

Takei has more than 700,000 followers on Twitter. Polito, as of this writing, has exactly 371.

The brouhaha arose when Polito told media blogger Jim Romanesko that he ghostwrites some of Takei’s posts for $10 a pop, a revelation that caused some degree of consternation around the Internet. It came out while Polito was trying to get some press for his YA horror-comedy book, Dark Shift. (I haven’t read it yet, but it’s averaging an impressive 4.9 out of 5 stars on Amazon’s user reviews, and it’s just a 99-cent Kindle download, so I’m sure I’ll be checking it out.)

Many people were disappointed to hear that Takei leans on this kind of help, being unaware that a lot — and I mean a lot — of celebrity posts and tweets are ghostwritten. The degree to which this happens varies, but if you think your favorite movie star or singer is spending time every day coming up with all that content, think again.

I ghostwrite for a few clients, one of whom has a huge — if far from Takei-like — Twitter following (more than 150,000 followers). Every once in awhile, if she needs a joke, I provide one. It’s mighty rewarding to see something I wrote get hundreds of retweets and favorites. If I posted it under my name, with my paltry following, it would be lucky to get a dozen.

(Momentary humblebrag: One tweet did very well after Patton Oswalt retweeted it, which basically made my life.)

I don’t charge my client for tweets or Facebook posts, though the option was offered. I do it to maintain a good relationship, so I can continue to charge a fair rate for helping with her books, TV show pitches, etc.

Anyway, I can’t help but feel for Polito. While Takei has taken a bit of guff over the revelation, I’ve seen more blowback directed at Polito, which is a bit unfair. Few people care about some freelance writer providing jokes for a celebrity. (Believe me.)

Takei has a massive fan base — although, let’s be honest, at least some of that fan base was built by his posting humor provided by outsourced writers. Takei still would be very popular if he never used a single ghostwriter, but it’s fair to say he wouldn’t be quite this popular.

By comparison, my Twitter-prolific client would have a huge following regardless of my contributions. She’s genuinely funny, and my contributions amount to a fraction of 1% of her posts. Also, we have a good working relationship. We communicate directly on everything we do, even though I’m in Denver, and she works in L.A. and New York.

A couple of things about the Takei-Polito situation bother me. Polito later emailed Romanesko to say:

I wrote an apology to George and Brad and their guy said he’d pass it on. I just said that I’d been looking for any mention of my book I could get and that I hadn’t meant to expose anything.

I don’t update his page. I’ve had no direct contact with George. I’ve sent him some memes, as have other comedian types and I was happy for the exposure.

There’s something odd there. You have a talented humorist helping to expand your brand (and thus expand your wallet) with posts and tweets appearing under your name, and you have no direct contact with him?

Here’s what Takei had to say to Wired:

What is this hoo-ha about my FB posts? I have Brad, my husband, to help me and interns to assist. What is important is the reliability of my posts being there to greet my fans with a smile or a giggle every morning. That’s how we keep on growing.

Um, I don’t know that I’d characterize a grown man and professional journalist as an “intern.” I’d be interested to know how many other professional humorists contributing to Takei are considered “interns.”

Granted, lots of people do very well for themselves with things they did not personally write. For example, late-night hosts generate their monologues from jokes conceived by a huge staff of writers. However, it’s the host who has to deliver those jokes for maximum impact. The delivery plays a huge part in how the joke performs, much like a singer covering someone else’s song.

When you post something ghostwritten on Facebook or Twitter, you’re not really adding anything to the equation. You’re copying and pasting a joke someone else wrote.

Sure, there’s some skill involved in selecting the material, and you might tweak it a bit to fit your voice, but it’s hard to argue that you’re adding much value in the process. The only value you’re adding is your popularity (and the wide exposure of your forum, but that exposure isn’t helping the ghostwriter, because he or she isn’t being credited in any way).

That’s not necessarily to excuse Polito’s revelation, for which he’s apologized. I don’t know his arrangement with Takei (or his middleman), but that’s not something one typically should disclose. When you ghostwrite, you accept that your reward is payment, not credit. If you don’t like that, demand a different arrangement, or do something else.

But it’s also impossible not to sympathize with Polito’s plight. He’s trying to sell a book, he’s looking for exposure, and he’s written some great stuff people have loved — except much of it is under Takei’s name. Did he consider inquiring whether Takei would provide some exposure by recommending Polito’s book on Twitter or Facebook? I don’t know.

In fairness to Takei, he has shown Polito some love before. He posted a couple of Polito’s synopses — with credit — on his Facebook page last year, calling Polito a “master of movie synopses.” In addition to the Wizard of Oz post, Takei posted this gem of Polito’s:

INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE: Tom Cruise is a soulless recluse who lurks in the darkness and sucks the life from all who come near him. He’s also in this movie about a vampire.

It got 47,000+ likes, as well it should.

P.S. Weird postscript: Out of curiosity, I followed Polito’s Twitter feed just as I was finishing this post. My handle is (@RickAfterDark.) Out of the blue, I got this tweet from him:

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6 Responses

  1. I have never understood ghostwriting. For example, what if I want to teach Math, but I can’t even double the sugar in a recipe? I decide to hire someone to teach the class for me, and I pay her half of the salary I receive. My newly hired ghostteacher uses my name and everything. She teaches Math, and I sip mojitos by the pool. I now get paid to do nothing, and everyone thinks I teach Math. If you cannot write, you probably shouldn’t. I shouldn’t be plumber, so I’m not one. If you have a great idea for a book, why not hire a writer to help you and give that person credit? It’s a lie otherwise. Imagine if all of Picasso’s paintings had been ghosted out to other artists. It’s wrong to take credit for someone else’s hard work. Celebrities are different. We know George Takei the brand not the person. You can think of Rick Polito and the other interns as paid advertisers. They are promoting a brand. It’s not quite the same as having someone write an entire book for you and then pretending you wrote it yourself.

    • They’re all valid points, Jessica, and I largely agree with you. I’m not a fan of the practice in general, because I agree that if you put your name on something, it should be entirely (or at least almost entirely) your own work. However, it’s a reality of the business, and when you’re a freelance writer, you can’t turn down opportunities that pay the bills.

  2. I feel for writers. I can’t think of another profession where people are forced to make that kind of sacrifice. If you want to make a living, you have to let someone else take credit for your work? That sounds like forced prostitution. Well written words are beautiful and a work of art. I’m not a writer, but I have read things that made me think or feel, and I seek out those writers. It’s an intimate experience. If it’s all a lie, it’s a broken trust. I would be devastated if I found out that my favorite book was ghostwritten.

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